1943 Willys Jeep
1943 Willys Jeep
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The idea for the Jeep developed in the late 1930s when the U.S. military wanted a small, quick, versatile, go-anywhere vehicle – a kind of motorized cavalry horse. All-terrain capability dictated four-wheel drive, a feature that had proved invaluable in World War I trucks.

The search for smallness led the army to Butler, PA, home of the American Bantam Car Company, manufacturer of an American version of the English Austin Seven.

Smallness they certainly found; the Bantam’s wheelbase was a mere 1,905 mm (75 in.), it weighed a feather-light 544 kg (1,200 lb), and was powered by a 22 horsepower, 0.8 litre (50 cu in.) four cylinder engine. After testing, the army concluded that while Bantam vehicles more than met the size criterion, they lacked the necessary performance and stoutness.

An ordnance technical committee in Washington drew up specifications for a new general purpose, one-quarter ton, all-purpose vehicle in June 1940. It specified a weight of 590 kg (1,300 lb), later raised to a more realistic 980 kg (2,160 lb), and a wheelbase of 2,032 mm (80 in.).

It was to be capable of carrying a 272 kg (600 lb) payload, and most important of all, must have four-wheel drive. Four-wheel steering was considered, but later abandoned.

Tenders were sent out to 135 American manufacturers, including all of the carmakers, inviting them to develop a prototype in an almost impossible 49 days.

Most companies looked at the deadline and dismissed the whole idea. Some, such as taxicab maker Checker, didn’t formally bid, but started experimenting. Only American Bantam, then on the verge of bankruptcy, set out to meet the deadline. Willys-Overland and Ford also developed versions, but said they could not meet the deadline.

Realizing that its baby car was too small to provide any of the components, American Bantam engaged Detroit consulting engineer Karl Probst (the company didn’t have a design engineer on staff!). By using a Continental engine, Studebaker axles, and a four-wheel drive design wheedled out of universal joint maker Spicer Manufacturing Co., Probst met the deadline.

American Bantam president Harold Crist and engineer Probst delivered the first “Bantam Recon Car” to Camp Holabird, MD at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 23, 1940, a half hour within deadline!

The army immediately began a 30-day, 6,000 km (3,725 mile) shakedown test. Although there were some problems, they were satisfied enough to give Bantam an order for 1500 of the versatile machines.

Meanwhile, the war in Europe was heating up. If the U.S. were drawn in, as seemed inevitable, it would need thousands of the little vehicles, not hundreds. Bantam’s production facilities, unfortunately for it, were found to be woefully inadequate to meet this demand.

To American Bantam’s bitter disappointment, the army had no choice but to find a manufacturer with larger capacity. Bantam did fill the original order for 1,500, however, and eventually built almost 3,000. Most went to the Soviet Union. During the war it would manufacture many Jeep trailers.

Willys-Overland delivered its prototype “Quad” on November 11, 1940. Ford also made its version available, and both were tested. The Willys model proved faster, thanks to its 61 horsepower Willys car engine, compared to the Ford’s 46 horsepower tractor engine. The Willys was chosen as the official light military vehicle.

Willys-Overland received the big order, but the army also had Ford build Jeeps under licence to W-O, and to Willys specifications. By the time World War II was over, close to 600,000 military Jeeps had been built; Willys-Overland had made about 360,000 and Ford the remainder.

The Jeep’s name has been the subject of speculation. Some think it was a simple contraction of GP, for general purpose utility vehicle. Others claim it was named after a Popeye comic strip character, Eugene the Jeep, a small, versatile, non-specific animal. Whatever its origin – the GP contraction seems most plausible – Jeep became a generic designation for light four-wheel drive utility vehicles.

The Jeep performed yeoman service in Europe, Asia, the Soviet Union, the Pacific, and China. It served as everything from general’s limousine to ambulance to gun platform, and established an almost mythical reputation. Its well of goodwill was so deep that it became one of the world’s best known names.

Following the Second World War the Willys Jeep made a successful transition to civilian life, turning overnight from the military Jeep to the civilian Jeep (CJ). Other models such as pickups, panels, an all-steel stations wagon, and the sporty Jeepster, soon followed.

Designed for war, the Jeep made a successful transition to peacetime where it became the father of the wildly popular 4X4 sport utility vehicle.

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